NEW YORK — Age Labs and BioAge Labs announced a partnership this week that will see the two companies scour a Norwegian biobank for data that could produce a multitude of new aging-related tests, therapies, and perhaps companion diagnostics.
The cohort in question is the Trøndelag Health Study, a multidecade research endeavor that saw questionnaire data, clinical measurements, and samples gathered from about 230,000 people between 1984 and 2019. Called the HUNT study, the biobank is maintained at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim.
According to Karl Trygve Kalleberg, CEO of Oslo-based Age Labs, NTNU is an established collaborator for his company, which is devoted to delivering diagnostics related to aging and age-related diseases using its Epiphany machine learning-based biomarker discovery platform. By bringing Richmond, California-based BioAge on board, it will be able to combine its efforts with a similarly minded firm with its own artificial intelligence-driven discovery platform.
"We are both in a sense doing biomarker discovery," remarked Kalleberg in an interview this week. While BioAge is focused on druggable biomarkers and interesting pathways, Age Labs could lend its expertise to determining for whom a particular therapy might work best, and to develop assays that could monitor response to treatment over time. As such, the output of the new partnership could very well be complementary therapies and tests.
"Those sorts of things lead you in the direction of potential companion diagnostics and, of course, patient stratification for clinical trials," said Kalleberg. "Those are topics to explore together in this project," he said. "We have a stack of bioinformaticians, they have a stack of bioinformaticians," Kalleberg added. "We anticipate cross-fertilization there."
Kristen Fortney, CEO and cofounder of BioAge, agreed. Fortney wrote in an email that BioAge aims to generate multiomics data from the samples in the biobank, "yielding millions of data points about changes in gene and protein expression, as well as metabolite levels, over the aging process." By combining this information with health records, the company aims to identify molecular features that distinguish healthy agers from people who develop chronic diseases as they age, she said.
Age Labs and BioAge are both interested in aging but are different kinds of companies. Age Labs remains a smaller, flexible firm with a full-time team of about half a dozen people. The company's pipeline includes a test for the early detection of rheumatoid arthritis, a biological age predictor, and a test predicting the severity of COVID-19 infection. It mainly relies on Illumina's Infinium MethylationEPIC Kit as a workhorse for data generation. The product includes an 850,000 marker methylation profiling array for carrying out epigenome-wide association studies.
According to Kalleberg, the company currently sees arrays and PCR as its main platforms for delivering diagnostics to market, although it is assessing other technologies like nanopore sequencing.
Age Labs' approach is hypothesis-driven, Kalleberg added, with multiple steps built in to reduce the risk of false positives. "That way we know that we have something that is specific to the indication," he said of the approach, "and have run multiple validation steps to demonstrate that."
Headquartered across the bay from San Francisco, BioAge has raised $127 million in the past few years, and its AI-based discovery platform has revealed multiple aging targets, according to Fortney, leading to the development of "multiple clinical-stage assets." Two targets related to muscle and immune aging are currently in Phase II trials.
Fortney said that partnering with Age Labs made sense given their familiarity with the HUNT cohort as well as their focus on aging and longevity. "The discovery platforms of the two companies are highly complementary," Fortney added. And since one is focused on drug targets and the other on diagnostics, they are not competitive with each other.
"Each company has its own clearly defined area of interest, and yet insights gained from the collaboration can potentially benefit both parties," said Fortney. "Further collaboration is also a clear possibility for the future," she added. "One can easily imagine that down the road, Age Labs' biomarkers could be used in the assessment of clinical trials of BioAge drugs."
BioAge partnered with the Estonian Genome Center in 2017 to gain access to its cohort for similar purposes. Fortney said that the collaboration continues, and the omics data it generates via the partnership continues to inform its efforts to link molecular profiles with health and mortality incomes, and to identify pathways associated with longevity.
"The data from the Estonian Genome Center biobank, along with data from our expanding set of longitudinal aging biobank collaborators, have played a key role in our target discovery efforts over the past five years, and will continue to contribute to the core data underlying the BioAge platform," said Fortney.
She added that both the HUNT cohort and the Estonian biobank are "priceless resources" for the company. "We are seeking to identify molecular changes that predict clinical outcomes: future health-span and lifespan," she said. "In order to make these predictions, we need decades of follow-up on the same individuals, up to the ends of their lives, coupled with detailed health records," she said. "Recreating a resource like this from scratch would take a very long time."
As for what indications the companies are targeting, Age Labs' Kalleberg said that his company is interested in degenerative and autoimmune diseases, including diseases that worsen with age, such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease. Assessing frailty is also a goal, as clinicians lack molecular tests for determining how frail a patient might be, which might factor into treatment decisions. But as for when any tests might reach the market, Kalleberg declined to speculate.
"What we are doing here is discovery," Kalleberg said. "And preplanning discovery is difficult."
COVID-19 Test Update
Kalleberg also provided an update on the epigenetics-based test for COVID-19 severity that Age Labs has been developing since 2020. According to Kalleberg, the test has now reached its final phase of validation. It will be indicated for patients who are at risk of severe COVID-19, he said.
"We know there are some groups that are at a higher risk than others of developing severe disease," said Kalleberg. "But even within those high risk groups — older people, immunocompromised people — there is still a lot of heterogeneity," he said.
Another issue is that therapies approved for treating severe COVID-19 have negative side effects, and it is not obvious that all patients will benefit from treatment. As such, the company's test could be used to stratify patients according to risk to see if they are on a trajectory to severe disease and thus if certain therapies are worth administering.
Kalleberg noted that Age Labs has transferred the test to a PCR-based format because it can be used in hospital labs, as opposed to arrays, which have a longer turnaround time and require samples to be sent to a central lab.
The firm's test for rheumatoid arthritis has been developed in an array format, but the COVID-19 severity test required PCR instead. The product includes a kit with reagents, protocol, plus the firm's algorithm, all of which are, at the moment, being validated, he said.
Kalleberg noted that Age Labs' test will require a CE-IVD certificate compliant with the EU's In Vitro Diagnostic Regulation. Given delays associated with the implementation of the new regulation, he was unable to provide a potential launch date for the test at this time.